Open letter to rescind NABT revision

Paul A. Nelson (
Fri, 6 Feb 1998 20:29:04 -0600 (CST)

To the ASA list:

The following open letter, now circulating on the Internet, was
written by the organizers of the annual Darwin Day at the
University of Tennessee. It bears on the recent NABT decision
to revise its statement about evolution. As several members
of this list were involved in lobbying to change the
NABT statement, I thought the letter would interest them.


Subject: IMPORTANT: open letter about the definition of EVOLUTION

Dear friends,

what follow is an open letter to the NABT, NCSE, and AAAS, about their
recent changes in the "layperson" definition of evolution. These changes
were implemented as a result of direct pressures from creationists.
Please, read the letter and, if you agree with most of it, send me an
email with your full name and affiliation. The letter will be sent to
the three organizations and posted on the "Darwin Day" web page at the
University of Tennessee (

Thanks for your time and consideration,
- Massimo Pigliucci

Open letter to the National Association of Biology Teachers, to the
National Center for Science Education, and to the American Association
for the Advancement of the Sciences

Object: recent changes in the wording of the NABTās definition of the
word "evolution"

To whom may be concerned,

It has recently come to our attention that the NABT, with the support of
the NCSE, has changed its statement defining what evolution is. This
change apparently was the result of pressures from the Christian
Fundamentalist movement. We strongly urge your two organizations to
reconsider such a change, and to defend scientific principles in the
face of public or partisan pressure of any kind. The following is a
brief analysis of the original statement, of the recent changes, and of
the stated motivations for such changes.

Our feeling is that it was an unfortunate decision, which can
potentially mislead the American public and which yields undue authority
to the already overwhelming political and religious pressure over
science that has been mounting in this country in recent years. The NABT
and the NCSE, as well as the scientific community at large, have an
inalienable right and a peremptory duty to defend rationalism and open
inquiry. The proposed change of the statement simply betrays such high
ideals at their core.

The significance of the change is far greater than just the two dropping
two controversial words, since it represents the first wedge of a
movement intended to surreptitiously introduce religious teachings into
our public schools. As a scientific community we should not allow even
the smallest crevice to appear in the edifice of evolutionary
biology that has been erected over the past 100 years.

The original NABT statement.

The original NABT definition of evolution was crafted in 1995 as a
"Statement on the Teaching of Evolution". The first item on the list of
"tenets of science, evolution and biology education" read:

The diversity of life on Earth is the outcome of evolution: an
unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal
descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection,
chance, historical contingencies and changing environments

While the customary modern definition of evolution in graduate level
textbooks is more akin to "changes in allelic frequencies in a
population" (D. Hartl & A. Clark, 1989 - Principles of population
genetics, Sinauer), the above quoted statement very accurately portrays
the broader meaning that evolutionary biologists attach to the term. In
fact, changes in allelic frequencies are a consequence, not the essence,
of evolution. Furthermore, since the NABT was looking for a definition
that could be understood by the general public and applied by biology
teachers nationwide, references to specific subject matters such as
population genetics are inappropriate.

The modification and how it came about.

The 1995 NABT statement apparently offended some religious
fundamentalists, chiefly among them Berkeley lawyer Phillip Johnson
(author of "Darwin on Trial" and other misleading literature on
evolution). Apparently, Johnson and others have claimed that the
statement implies that evolutionary theory is an ideological statement,
since the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" automatically exclude
any divine intervention. This was explicitly suggested by a letter to
the NABT by what the NCSE qualifies as "distinguished scholars" Alvin
Plantinga, John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame
University, and Huston Smith, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion at
Syracuse University. Notice that while these esteemed colleagues may
very well be "distinguished", they certainly are not biologists.

Smithās and Platingaās concern was that the NABT wording " aid
and comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a
legitimate target. And, because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers
Americansā respect for scientists and their place in our culture. If the
words Īimpersonalā and Īunsupervisedā were dropped from your opening
sentence it would help defuse tensions which, as things stand, are
causing unnecessary problems in our collective life."

As a consequence of this upheaval, the NABT agreed to reconsider the
wording of the controversial statement, and did so at its 1997 meeting.
The Board voted to retain the original statement, on the sound reasoning
that Smithās and Platingaās assertion that the wording "contradicts the
beliefs of the majority of the American people" is irrelevant.
Scientific definitions, according to the Board, are independent of
public opinion. But things did not end there.

NABT President-Elect Richard Storey reconvened the Board at the end of
the meeting, a few days later. The outcome of the new discussion was

1) The extant wording which included "unsupervised" and "impersonal"
apparently was miscommunicating both the nature of science and NABT's

2) The deletion of those two words would not affect the statement's
accurate characterization of evolution, and affirmation of evolution's
importance in science education.

Eugenie Scottās comment on the NCSE web page
( was that the new NABT statement
( was the result of "a statesmanlike
decision that better fulfilled [the NABT] goal by reducing a potential
source of conflict in the classroom."

Why it was a bad move.

Apparently, the feeling at the NABT meeting was that the organization
and the American public (actually, the Christian Right) had a
miscommunication problem. The NABT did not want its statements to
include theological positions - rightly so. This politically correct
attitude, however, does not serve science very well. We do not disagree
that science, and evolutionary biology in particular, cannot prove or
disprove the existence of some kind of god. On the other hand, the
reason the American public perceives a direct conflict is because indeed
evolution denies many attributes of the various forms of Christian god.
In this, fundamentalists and the American public at large are smarter
than most scientists give them credit for. It is time for the scientific
community and for educators to simply face this fact and move on,
regardless of the consequences and predictable social outcry.

In fact, Scottās statement that the NABT move was an example of
"statesmanlike decision" is particularly illuminating of the fear of
scientists and educators to face political and religious pressures. It
is the same "statesmanship" that prompted the National Science
Foundation to actively delete any appearance of the word evolution in
the layman abstracts of research proposals in evolutionary biology
funded by the Federal Government. And we thought that the Inquisition
and witch-hunting were over!

As to the two points deliberated by the final NABT Board meeting, let us
analyze them in some more detail. The words "unsupervised" and
"impersonal" were taken as miscommunicating the nature of science. Not
really. Science is based on a fundamental assumption: that the world can
be explained by recurring only to natural, mechanistic forces. Johnson
is quite right in affirming that this is a philosophical position. He is
wrong when he suggests that it is an unreasonable and unproven one. In
fact, every single experiment conducted by any laboratory in any place
on Earth represents a daily test of that assumption. The day in which
scientists will be unable to explain natural phenomena without recurring
to divine intervention, we will have a major paradigm shift - of
cataclysmic proportions.

The second point of the Boardās deliberation is that dropping the
contentious words does not affect the accuracy of the portrayal of
evolution to the American public. Really? The NABT leaves open the
possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner.
This is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist would vigorously
and positively deny. All we know so far about the evolutionary process
tells us that there is no supervision except for the action of natural
selection (which, by definition, is not teleonomic). Furthermore, a
personal involvement would imply some "person" who would take care of
directing the evolutionary process one way or the other. The fossil
record, as well as the importance of random events such as catastrophes,
mass extinctions, and genetic drift, assure us that such a personal
involvement has not happened. Unless, of course, the person in question
is supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised,
impersonal process. A possibility, the latter, repeatedly invalidated on
philosophical grounds ever since David Hume and well before Darwin...

Furthermore, the wording following the indicted terms, "unpredictable"
and "natural" seems to us to convey the same feeling to which Johnson
was objecting to. If something is unpredictable it hardly is supervised,
and if it is natural, it hardly is divine.

In conclusion, we reiterate that evolution indeed is, to the best of our
knowledge, an impersonal and unsupervised process. Scientists are always
open to revise their positions if new compelling evidence surfaces, so
that Mr. Johnson can be reassured that the incriminated words will be
dropped if demonstrated to be inconsistent with reality. Until then,
please leave the job to scientists and educators, not to lawyers,
theologians, and politicians.


Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolution,
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Society for the Study of Evolution
"Dobzhansky" Awardee

Melissa Brenneman, Librarian and Computer Sciences teacher, Roane State
Community College, Harriman, TN

Dr. Mitchell Cruzan, Assistant Professor of Ecology, University of
Tennessee, Knoxville

Carl Ledendecker, Knoxville-TN Montessori Teacher

Massimo Pigliucci, phone 423-974-6221 fax 0978
Dept. of Botany, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-1100

Lab page Science & Society Darwin Day Rationalists of East Tennessee ******************************************************************